Why Barney Frank Won't Be the Interim Senator to Replace John Kerry in Massachusetts


Barney Frank should have newfound empathy for Aristotle. Just as the Greek philosopher’s desire to lead Plato’s Academy was dashed by Plato’s selection of Speusippus, his amiable but unqualified nephew, so has Frank’s ambition to become the interim senator from Massachusetts been ended by Governor Deval Patrick’s selection of his long-time friend William “Mo” Cowan.

Frank’s rejection came despite his public lobbying campaign for the interim seat, a campaign supported by powerful liberal voices like Elizabeth Warren, Lawrence O’Donnell and the Progressive Change Campaign Committee. This campaign, despite garnering national media attention, was a plea that fell on deaf ears, as Cowan won the only endorsement that mattered – the governor’s. Comparing Frank’s résumé to Cowan makes it clear that objective criteria had little to do with the governor’s choice, as Frank has accumulated a compelling list of qualifications during his 32 years as a congressman while Cowan has no experience whatsoever in federal government. In selecting Cowan, Patrick harmed the Democratic Party in Washington, as Frank would have been a forceful advocate on upcoming debates while Cowan will be hamstrung by his complete inexperience.

Many national observers believe Governor Patrick rejected Frank because the lobbying campaign was an affront to the governor’s sensibilities, but Patrick’s personal feelings mattered far less than the politics surrounding the interim appointment. Patrick has recently proposed this year’s budget, and it is a staunchly liberal one which increases almost every state tax to fund increased social welfare spending. This budget would form the cornerstone of Patrick’s potential 2016 presidential campaign, a campaign which exists, at the very least, in the mind of Governor Patrick, as proven by his recent trips to South Carolina and Iowa. For this budget to have a chance of passing a legislature which, while dominated by Democrat supermajorities, has more moderate sensibilities than Governor Patrick, legislative leaders need to be kept happy.

Giving anything to Barney Frank would be guaranteed to anger the sachems of the Massachusetts state house, because while Democrats nationwide view Frank as a liberal champion, the state house has years of bad relations with a man they consider selfish and unwilling to help out with fundraising and other political activities. As Boston Herald columnist Howie Carr put it: “Barney’s never been one to suffer fools gladly … a real problem if you’re trying to get something out of the fool-heavy Massachusetts legislature.” Since Frank was elected to Congress in 1980, Democrats in the state legislature have hated him. In 1982, Senate President Billy Bulger ensured that Frank was redistricted into the district held by popular Republican Margaret Heckler. Although Frank beat Heckler in the election, the state house never stopped trying to harm him anyway they could. During the last round of redistricting, they finally got their chance and forced Frank into a district which contained some of the most Republican towns in Massachusetts. Frank admits this redistricting was what forced him into retirement. After putting that much work into defeating Barney Frank, the legislature would certainly take it personally if the governor turned around and appointed their nemesis as an interim senator. Refusing to pass a budget just because the governor appointed a disliked interim senator may seem petty, but Patrick isn’t taking any chances – and that meant Barney’s senatorial hopes never had a prayer.